Palestine between religion and secularism

by Aziz Abu Sarah
WASHINGTON, DC - In the last three decades, Palestinian identity has undergone tremendous changes. According to a UNDP poll published last April, 47 percent of residents of Gaza and the West Bank identify themselves first and foremost as Muslims. This is surprising, considering that the Palestinian community was once regarded as one of the most secular in the Arab world, and that three decades ago political Islam had a very limited role in the Palestinian national movement. Tellingly, the study also found that 80 percent of young Palestinians are chronically depressed, demonstrating a widespread belief that the future holds little hope for them.

The Hamas victory in the last Palestinian elections is only one of the latest signs that the community is looking for answers in a time of desperation, corruption and oppression. In their pursuit of change, Palestinian voters turned to Hamas hoping for honesty, inclusion and a vision for the future.

However, polling shows that many Palestinians grew disenchanted with Hamas soon after the elections, as Hamas failed to deliver on its promises for a unified Palestinian agenda. Many voices have been arguing that the Islamic leadership has failed and that religion should not play a role in Palestinian political life. This secular movement claims that religious groups like Hamas and radical Jewish groups are a big part of the problem and therefore should be eliminated from the political and civil process.

But while it is true that religious leaders and organisations have added fuel to the conflict, this doesn’t mean that a secular leadership is the only answer. On the contrary, religion can and must play a greater role in solving the problems faced by the Palestinian community.

There is ample historical precedent for the dual role that religion can play in shaping political ideology. In the United States, for example, the period before the Civil War was a time of anger and hopelessness, and then too religion was used to justify oppression and corruption. Religious and political leaders cited Judeo-Christian biblical arguments to teach slaves that they were inferior to whites, and churches and ministers led the effort to preserve slavery in the South. Baptist Reverend R. Furman spoke for many Southerners when he wrote that “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.” Even Confederate President Jefferson Davis used the Bible to claim that slavery was established by heavenly decree. Nor did these beliefs end with emancipation: Christian theologians continued to support segregation, terror and racial attacks against blacks in the community well into the next century.

However, religious leaders were also the ones at the forefront of a massive movement toward emancipation and civil rights in the United States. Whites and blacks like Jonathan Daniels and Martin Luther King Jr. countered religious violence, ignorance and racism with a religious message of love, non-violence and activism. They didn’t turn against religion when religious leaders failed them but rather challenged the status quo on religion. It is well known that King Jr. used his church podium to preach a new message of hope.

In a similar way, although Islam has been used by many Palestinians to support violence and even justify corrupt political institutions, people have forgotten that Islam is also rich with scriptures of peace and compassion. Islam’s Prophet himself refused to fight for 13 years while in Mecca, teaching and preaching under oppression and torture.

In the Palestinian territories where many people are turning to religion, faith cannot be ignored and should not be handed over to the radicals. We must reject the idea that our political choices are limited to either religious extremism or a purely secular vision.

The time is ripe for a non-violent movement in the Palestinian community to rise up from the least expected places—from the mosques, the religious institutes and the Islamic centres. These places are often accused of being the birthplace of violence, but they can also be the birthplace of positive ideas for change. Faith-based non-violent movements have succeeded in the past to rally the multitude and change the political reality where it seemed impossible, and it can provide the same answers today.

Non-violent methods have already achieved some success in Palestinian villages such as Budrus, where both religious and secular Palestinians joined hands to resist the separation barrier which was slated to run through their land. Their protest was successful and the route of the barrier has been changed. However, the Palestinian non-violent movement is still divided and is mostly secular. I believe that the movement needs a moral and spiritual message of justice that can bind us together, and this cannot happen without the strong presence of religious leaders and religious members of the community. Just as Reverend King and Jonathan Daniels countered violent Christians with a different Christian theology to reclaim their religion and morals, Palestinians too must use religion as a force to unify rather than divide.

Freedom of religion doesn’t just mean the freedom to worship—it also includes the freedom to use religion constructively in motivating people to make positive changes in government. In a region where religion has been hijacked for extremist agendas, religion is an essential element for creating a better future. This is why Palestinians today have the opportunity to use religion to inspire the birth of a non-violent movement that can unify them in their pursuit of freedom.


* Aziz Abu Sarah is the Director of Middle East Projects at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University at George Mason University, and a winner of the Eliav-Sartawi Award for Common Ground Journalism. His blog can be found at Email: This article is part of a special series on freedom of religion in Israel and the Palestinian Authority and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 04 February 2010,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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Other articles in this series

Redefining the “Jewish” in the Jewish state by Marc Gopin
Overcoming religious prejudices through education: the experience of Bethlehem University by Fr. Jamal Khader
Freedom of religion for mutual survival by Muli Peleg
Inclusive Judaism is needed in Israel by Menachem Klein
Palestine must be a secular state by Hussein Ibish